20 Best Leg Workouts For Women: Home & Gym
Your legs are made up of some of your largest muscles — they — quite literally! — support you during most activities you do each day. When you train your legs, you should aim to include exercises that strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, calves and quadriceps.
- Why do leg exercises?
- Benefits of leg exercises
- Leg activation exercises
- Bodyweight leg exercises
- Free weight leg exercises
- Machine leg exercises
- Recovery leg exercises
Incorporating some of these leg workouts for women at least once a week is a great way to build your strength and muscular endurance.
Why do leg exercises?
Your legs are used in everyday movements and during several powerful compound exercises like the squat, deadlift and bench press. Leg exercises have many benefits including strengthening your leg muscles, building stronger bones in adolescents and maintaining bone density when you are older.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons state that “exercise works on bones much like it does on muscles — it makes them stronger.” This makes leg workouts particularly important for women, as according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation in the US, women are more prone to osteoporosis compared to men as they age.
Leg exercises are also a great way to increase your overall strength and fitness and can help activate the muscles that become inactive when sitting.
Benefits of leg exercises
Leg exercises can help you achieve a range of fitness goals — from building muscle to improving your performance in other activities.
Because of the size of your leg muscles compared to the other muscles in your body, it takes a lot more energy to recruit them during exercise. Lower body exercises are therefore one of the easiest ways to get your heart rate up, particularly when performed at higher intensities, which can be a great way to mix up your training and work out in different heart rate zones.
By strengthening your lower body and building muscle, you can enhance your execution of activities that involve running, jumping, twisting or kicking.
When your lower body is strong you are also more resilient to injury.
Best leg exercises for women
Most of these leg workouts for women don’t require complicated movements or equipment. You can use free weights, machines at the gym, or just your bodyweight.
As with any strength workout, you should start with a warm-up and spend time activating the muscles you are about to train.
Before you start: activate your leg muscles
According to The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) in the US, activation exercises are corrective exercises used by “health and fitness professionals to address and fix movement compensations and imbalances.” They aim to help you feel better both in your everyday life and during your workouts.
NASM says the focus of performing activation exercises is to “isolate specific muscles [or] emphasize parts of a specific muscle to increase intramuscular coordination and to improve force production capabilities.”. This in turn can help trigger your mind and muscle connection and ensure all the correct muscle fibres are firing during your workout.
Below are some effective leg activation exercises you can try before starting your workout.
Clams activate your gluteus medius, which is the hip muscle utilised during internal and external rotation and abduction. As stated by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the gluteus medius also helps to stabilise the hip and pelvis when performing weight-bearing activities.
This clam variation demonstrated by Sweat trainer, Stephanie Sanzo engages your core which helps to stabilise your body. It is a great exercise to do before lower body exercises, including heavy lifts like deadlifts or squats.
This exercise helps to improve hip stability, strengthen the hip abductors and deep muscles of the pelvis, and improve knee and ankle stability.
You can do crab walks before lifting or before running to switch on the important leg stabilising muscles.
Glute bridges activate your hamstrings (a group of muscles behind your thighs that control hip and knee movement), and your glutes.
This is a good exercise to do before squats or deadlifts.
Results from a 2015 systematic review on “The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance” published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that, while more studies are still being conducted, foam rolling may be effective for enhancing joint range of motion and pre and post-exercise muscle performance.
According to ACE, foam rolling can also help to increase blood flow to the muscles and loosen connective tissue around muscle fibres to alleviate muscle tightness.
Foam rolling is beneficial before a workout too - you can foam roll your glutes, calves and the sides of your legs to prepare for your next leg day.
Once you’ve activated your legs, you’re ready to start your leg workout!
Bodyweight leg exercises
Here are some effective bodyweight exercises that target all of the muscles in your legs:
Hamstring curl (fitball)
Hamstring curls challenge your balance and core while targeting your hamstrings.
Squats work the muscles in your legs, especially the glutes, quads and hamstrings, as well as engaging your core. Doing squats can help you to build stability for jumping exercises and can also help to improve balance.
You can try this variation of a static lunge if you have more space.
Walking lunges strengthen the leg muscles, core and hips and can help to loosen tight hip flexors and activate the glutes.
You can do this exercise using a step, a bench or any other stable elevated surface.
Box jumps target the fast-twitch muscle fibres in your calves, hamstrings, quads and glutes, which are the muscles recruited during explosive movements.
Free weight leg exercises
Do these leg exercises if you have weights at home or access to free weights at the gym. You can use dumbbells or kettlebells for resistance.
Single-leg Romanian deadlift
This exercise targets your glutes and hamstrings and helps to improve your balance.
Multiple studies have found that unilateral exercises can help to reduce any imbalances between your left and right sides.
ACE states that when you train one side of the body, particularly during lower body exercises, the other side is also stimulated. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine concluded that unilateral strength training produces adaptations in the opposite limb, which may also facilitate rehabilitation to a greater degree.
This exercise builds total-body strength, targeting the backs of your legs, as well as improving your core strength and stability.
Alternatively, the sumo deadlift is a variation of the conventional barbell deadlift that involves positioning your legs wider apart and your grip closer together.
A 2019 article published by the University of Notre Dame in the US discussed the differences between these deadlift variations and found that the sumo deadlift may be more beneficial as it decreases “stress on the back, recruits more lower body muscles [...] indirectly places a focus on flexibility” and can allow you to lift heavier as you progress with your training.
Squats are a compound movement that work your whole body — this makes them a very effective exercise for a variety of fitness goals.
To increase the difficulty, take your time with the downward part of the movement. Going slowly increases “time under tension” and activates the muscles.
Calf raises can increase ankle strength and stability and may help prepare your body for plyometric exercises like box jumps.
This exercise is most effective when done slowly — try to hold at the top of the movement for one or two seconds, and the same at the bottom of the exercise to fully engage the calf muscle.
Machine leg exercises
You can do these exercises using the machines at the gym to strengthen your legs.
Using machines can help you to isolate and train specific muscles in your lower body, build power and speed.
This squat variation keeps your upper back and hips in a stable position, reducing the reliance on core strength compared to a barbell squat. Your hips are in a fixed position and this means that more of the load is taken by the quads.
The leg press targets your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves. Many gyms have a 45-degree leg press (as shown above), or a horizontal leg press — either is fine to use.
This exercise targets the quadriceps, using the lever action of the leg to load the thigh muscle. It’s an effective exercise for building lower body strength and muscle definition.
Doing hamstring exercises helps to build balanced, strong legs. This isolation exercise targets the hamstrings but also engages the calf muscles, glutes, quads and shins.
Recovery leg exercises
After completing the leg exercises above, you can speed up your muscle recovery by taking the time to cool down.
Use these static stretches after your workout to improve flexibility and range of motion.
Hip flexor and quad stretch
This stretch helps to release tight quads and stretches your hip flexors. You can intensify the stretch by contracting your glute muscle — aim to hold the stretch for 30 seconds during your cool down.
This stretch releases tight hamstrings and also stretches your calves. It’s a good stretch to use during an active recovery session or when you can lie down to stretch. You can intensify the stretch by looping a towel or a yoga strap around your foot and holding onto it.
Hamstring and calves stretch
You can do this stretch after a walk or run — hold for 30 seconds on each side and raise your toes towards your shins to intensify the stretch in the calf muscle.
Foam rolling — TFL
It can be difficult to stretch the outside of the leg, but you can loosen the area using a foam roller.
In this video, Sweat trainer Kelsey Wells demonstrates foam rolling of the tensor fasciae latae, sometimes referred to as the “TFL”. This area can be quite tight, so you might start by using a soft foam roller.
You can try many other stretches for your glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves — just remember to choose stretches that target the muscle groups used during your workout.
Use these exercises to strengthen your legs
If you find that your workouts have hit a plateau, incorporating some new leg exercises into your routine, changing your workout intensity, or focusing more on movement and recovery, might help keep you motivated and persevere through a setback.
Whether you use bodyweight exercises at home or train your legs in the gym, the key is to start with simpler movements and increase the complexity and intensity as you gain confidence and strength.
You might start by doing bodyweight squats or calf raises, and build up to more intense plyometric exercises, or lifting weights.
If you aren’t sure how to progress towards your leg training goals, you can try one of the Sweat programs to guide you every step of the way.
* Results may vary. Strict adherence to the nutrition and exercise guide are required for best results.